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GNU/Linux: Source Code and Human Rights

Reframing the Conversation

  • May 8, 2008
  • By Bruce Byfield

Ask average computer users what FOSS is about, and, if they've even heard of it, they'll probably say something about the source code being publicly available.

The problem is that the community has done a deplorable job of explaining itself to outsiders. Focused on the immediate concerns of developers, the Open Source Definition lists only one right out of ten (to redistribute the software) that might be of interest to average computer users. The more concise Free Software Definition includes two out four points for the average user (the rights to redistribute and to run the program for any purpose). But, in practice, those who use it tend to be focused on the rights given to developers like themselves.

Nor is the matter clarified by the popular use of the term "open source" for the entire movement, since the term refers directly to the source code. (Admittedly, "free software" is equally misleading in its own way, since most outsiders think the term synonymous with "freeware," but that's another issue).

The problem with explaining FOSS in terms of source code is that, unless you're a developer, source code is only the means to an end. As Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, pointed out to me a couple of years ago, promoting FOSS in terms of source code is like promoting recycling in terms of the technical details of recycling, such as the temperature at which certain plastics melt or the chemical processes that occur in an operating smelter--basically, most people don't care.

Instead of talking technicalities, environmentalists talk about what recycling can do for you and your community. In other words, they refer simultaneously to self-interest and ethics.

If FOSS is ever going to gain a strong foothold outside its own community, its advocates need to adopt a similar approach. Outside of their own circles, they need to stop talking about being able to change the source code, which will only produce stony-faced indifference in the average listener. Instead, FOSS supporters need to talk about the advantages that access to the source code brings to the average user: The consumer rights and the extension of free speech that accessible source helps to promote.

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